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Saturday, September 3, 2016

A New Sight: Light & the Color Yellow in Beauford Delaney’s Portraits

By Sojourner Ahébée

What becomes immediately apparent about Beauford Delaney’s paintings is his obsession with light. Delaney often used the color yellow in his work as an expression of this light. Though yellow is present in many of his abstracts, his use of the color in his portraits serves as a fascinating dimension of what I would call a kind of second sight -- his ability to see those he painted beyond their physical presentation and to capture the energy, love, or brilliance they brought into the world.

If we are to talk about the intersection of light and the color yellow in Delaney’s portraits, we must also think about the trajectory of his portraits throughout his lifetime. As I was digging into his past, I encountered an intriguing work that he painted of a young woman in 1934.

Untitled (Portrait of a Young Woman)
(1934) Color pastels
Private collection
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

A previous Les Amis de Beauford Delaney blog post on Delaney’s portraiture presents readers with a quote by Dr. Catherine St. John:

It is the expressive single-figure realist portrait that first brought Beauford Delaney critical notice and a measure of success. He loved people. He continued the art of portraiture without interruption throughout his career. His portraits tell a story that is human and real, saying as much about him as those he painted.

What struck me the most about Delaney’s 1934 portrait of the young woman was its staggering realism. It is so detail-focused that it almost feels like looking at a photograph. The shadows falling on the woman’s face, her slightly disproportionate eyes, and the precision of the strands of hair at the top of her head all work to tell what Dr. St. John has identified as a “human story.”

Delaney’s mastery of such realism is simply a testament to the commitment he had to accurately capturing the likeness of his subjects. Every feature of the woman -- from the muscle on the left side of her neck to the subtle rouge in her cheeks -- is accounted for. Though this portrait has no trace of Delaney’s legendary yellow, it does play with light and darkness in interesting ways.

Yet, Delaney moved away from such realism in his later portraits. I wonder if this is indicative of the shortcomings of “primary” sight.

As Delaney experimented with other modes of portraiture, I think he realized that telling a person’s story demanded much more than replicating their features on the canvas. Maybe the painter asked himself to re-imagine a visual language for expressing who a person was (and what they offered the world) that was not wholly dependent on a literal or unembellished presentation of their physical countenance. Which only means he was looking for a figurative mode of storytelling.

And he certainly found one. Consider his 1968 portrait of Ella Fitzgerald.

Ella Fitzgerald
(1968) Oil on canvas
The Walter O. Evans Collection of African American Art
© Estate of Beauford Delaney
by permission of Derek L. Spratley, Esquire,
Court Appointed Administrator

Here, the Queen of Jazz is shrouded in a misty yellow hue. Her head is the only part of her body that is identifiable, and even that is cloaked in Delaney’s remarkable yellow. Unlike the portrait of the young woman, this painting does not place great urgency on explicit and unambiguous details of the human body.

It would have been easy for Delaney to create a standard portrait of Lady Ella, but that would have been an incomplete rendering of the power and the light she made possible through her voice and her music. Think “Summertime” or “Cry Me a River”: Fitzgerald’s voice exists between a tender space and one ravaged by fire and uproar. She can sing sweetly as she drags out a note, but she can just as quickly disrupt that serenity with a booming moan. Regardless of what she sings and how, she illuminates some of the most human elements of waking life: love, heartbreak, desire. The way in which the yellow dominates the painting, almost like the way light pushes itself into a dark room to illuminate it, is just the way Fitzgerald’s voice moves into the ears and hearts of her listeners.

I think it is this dynamism of Fitzgerald’s voice and message that Delaney wished to capture in his painting of her. His use of the color yellow is not solely about an obsession with light, but also an opportunity to look into the internal landscape of a person, and he takes full advantage of this opportunity with Ella.

As Delaney continued to envelop his portraits in yellow hues, I think he was searching for a new sight. He was asking himself what of people is there to see and how could he make visible the most precious parts of their soul.


Sojourner Ahébée is a 2016 BOSP Continuation International Fellow for the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. She is currently serving as the Paris intern for the Wells International Foundation.

Read more of Sojourner's work at Sojourner Ahébée.

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